Everybody's a flag-waver these days. How many people vote, though? Not that many-- about 40 percent of eligible voters in Spokane County cast ballots on Tuesday, according to County Auditor Vicky M. Dalton, a number she called "truly disappointing."
Normally off-year elections garner turnouts in the 50s, and early voting action lead Dalton to believe the county would reach that mark again. Elections officials expect about 88,000 ballots out of 217,272 registered -- the exact total will remain uncertain for days, due to last-minute absentee ballots.
Still, tens of thousands of citizens took the time. For some Inland Northwest voters, casting a ballot was a way to affect a Washington-wide policy. For others, there's a greater, more elemental purpose inside the voting booth: duty.
"I was given the right to vote, so I vote," said Spokane resident Tom Rodgers, 54, in the hallway of the Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Tuesday was also the first introduction many Spokane County voters had to a new voting system that features electronically scanned ballots -- no more chads! -- and consolidated polling places.
"We just flat out had too many poll sites," said Dalton, speaking Tuesday afternoon.
The county slashed the number of poll sites from 191 to 119. The result is greater inconvenience for some voters, but, according to Dalton, the fewer stations will make for smoother elections. It will also save the county perhaps $8,000 each election.
"You have to weigh cost against convenience," Dalton said, adding, "It just was not maintainable with taxpayer dollars."
And the new system seemed to work, although it was a bit jarring to see the results all at once right at 10 pm rather than following updates as has been in the drill in elections past.
The process is not over, though. For the next two weeks, elections workers will receive some absentee ballots posted at the last minute, recount any close votes (Dennis Hession and Dean Lynch were separated by only nine votes at last count) and hand-count special ballots. Overall, several thousand more votes are likely yet to be counted. Dalton will certify the final, official totals on Nov. 21.
Incumbent Al French handily defeated challenger Robert Apple, with about 60 percent of the vote in Northeast Spokane.
"I'm gratified," French said on election night. "It tells me the voters appreciate the work I've done and want me to do more. And I'm ready to do more." He credited his win to person-to-person campaigning. "I have a pair of shoes I've absolutely worn out."
If an unscientific poll of several District One voters is any indication, French benefited greatly from name recognition and the momentum developed by an incumbent seen to work hard at the job.
Jim and Shirley, one couple who voted at Rogers High School, both opted to support French. "I like that he's done a lot for this area," said Shirley. Jim agreed, saying French had helped the district open its police sub-station nearby.
It was also interesting to note how voting was significantly lower in District One than in the other two districts. Although the three districts are roughly the same in population, fewer than 8,000 people cast ballots in District One while more than 13,000 cast votes in both District Two (Northwest Spokane) and District Three (the South Hill).
Remember Gore and Bush? It seems like every election has got to have a cliffhanger -- this time around it's the race between City Council incumbent Dean Lynch and long-time Park Board member and local attorney Dennis Hession.
The two candidates sometimes struggled to differentiate themselves during the campaign, and by Tuesday night the poll results couldn't either.
Lynch was ahead with only nine votes after the final count, but Hession remained optimistic.
"That's pretty close, wouldn't you say?" said Hession from his home. "But I'm not worried. Actually, I'm encouraged. There will be a large number of absentee ballots to count, and in the primary we did a lot better with the post-election absentee ballots than with the ones that came in before."
Dalton, the county auditor, said she expected perhaps 2,000 absentee ballots to come in.
Lynch, who was at Aracelia's restaurant on East Trent, was swamped by phone calls when the results came out. "It's very close -- but I'm not that surprised, we knew it was going to be a close race," he said. "I mean, I'm optimistic. The [early] absentee ballots had me with 11 votes, so assuming that trend continues we'll come out ahead of my opposition."
Cherie Rodgers, a community activist and current council member, beat challenger Jeff Colliton, a retired Army colonel and former council member, for the District Three seat. She won 7,820 votes -- about 60 percent -- to his 5,204.
Though both believe other issues face the city, Rodgers and Colliton have found themselves entangled in the River Park Square controversy. Colliton served on the council from 1996 to 2000, and in that time he voted in favor of the public-private partnership which has gone sour. He now says the matter should be resolved by a negotiated business settlement between the city and the developer.
Rodgers was appointed to the City Council in 1997 to replace Chris Anderson. She came to the council after River Park Square, but has worried that issue like a bulldog. It's too early to settle the matter, says Rodgers; what the public needs is an aggressive investigation including, if necessary, litigation.
So, the Rodgers-Colliton race could be seen as a referendum of sorts on the River Park Square quagmire. Colliton and settlement, or Rodgers and fight? If voters bought that line, they apparently want Rodgers to fight to get to the bottom of the issue.
COEUR d'ALENE MAYOR
Call it the victory of the Old Guard over the Young Turk: Downtown merchant Sandi Bloem walked away with a three-to-one victory in the mayor's race over nurseryman Steve Badraun in Tuesday's election.
Bloem credited her victory with the "fabulous people who supported me." She stuck on message, she said, and spoke to voters. "I think it all paid off."
Bloem and Badraun didn't disagree over the issues facing the Lake City but rather offered a distinct choice in city hall government. Both have long been involved in public affairs as volunteers for various boards and committees.
Bloem had the support of Coeur d'Alene's power brokers and promised voters a mayor careful in her policy-making and steeped in city history.
Badraun ran against what he called small-town politics; ultimately, it was that establishment that knocked him out of the race, he said, "The community is unable to accept diversity of opinion," says Badraun. "I think anyone who tries to do that is going to get slammed pretty hard."
The Tim Eyman-backed initiative to cap property tax increases at one percent was one reason Homer C. Todd voted. "I wanted to make sure it was defeated," he said on election night, outside his polling place at the First Assembly of God Church on West Indiana. "A lot of folks who have a lot of money want a free ride and don't want to give any of it away."
Well, Todd (and many local firefighters) probably went to bed disappointed because I-747 sailed through the election with overwhelming support.
Ultimately, more voters agreed with Mike Bethel, who voted at Franklin Elementary on East 17th Avenue. "I voted yes on I-747," he said. "I think we are being taxed out of our homes."
A statewide home care quality authority will be established as a result of the passage of this measure, which will also establish guidelines and training goals for in-home care providers. The home care quality authority will also provide the workers with a chance to unionize and bargain for better benefits.
Opponents were concerned that increased regulations would make in-home care more expensive, but supporters like Doug King actually believe the opposite will be true. "I voted yes," said King, who voted in Browne's Addition. "I think providing care for older people in their homes is a lot less expensive than sending them to [group] homes. And they are happier in their own homes."
For many citizens, I-773 wasn't just public policy, it was personal. "I smoked a big share of my life," said Jerri Voss at the Westminster Presbyterian Church on West Boone. "Now I have grandchildren, and I don't want them to smoke."
Preliminary election results statewide show I-773, which would levy tobacco taxes to pay for health services for low-income people, passing with about 64 percent of the vote.
Not everyone thinks increasing smoking taxes in the name of children is fair. Pat King, a smoker, cast her ballot at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Browne's Addition. "I'm against the cigarette tax," she said. "I mean, taxing the smokers is just like [saying], 'Let's go tax someone,' and they just pick the smokers."